I present a few vignettes from yesteryear as segue to education, modern-style.
Too many questions.
Back in the years of my wasted youth, I studied first year algebra under the stern hand of Fraülein Rieber. (She was rumored to have received her training at the A. Hitler Technical Institute, but that was never confirmed.) Miss Rieber gave some valuable instruction to students on the first steps of the higher math ladder – i.e., beyond solving problems by counting on fingers and toes. She was very strong on solution-presentation – insisting that each line of a problem’s solution must contain a restatement of the equation, with the = sign lined up precisely below the = sign of the previous line. This orderly presentation, she said, enabled a clear statement of how you arrived at the solution, and helped you find errors. I have to admit that it was good counsel, as it helped me to reach graduate-level mathematics and have a productive technical career.
What Fraülein Rieber was not good at, however, was actually teaching math – or, at least, she didn’t like doing it. She found it annoying to explain mathematical concepts. To avoid doing so, she was able to insist on having classes which contained only the best students. These could be counted on to grasp the material on their own, without bothering her with nettlesome questions.
I realized this aspect of her educational style when a new guy joined our class after transferring into the school. Bob was clearly a smart guy, but he tended to ask a lot of questions in class about the material. It was easy to see that Miss Rieber was getting more and more annoyed with him. After a couple of class-sessions, Bob wasn’t there. We learned that Miss Rieber had him transferred to another algebra class. Another guy in our class got the bums rush, too, when he asked too many annoying questions to suit Das Fraülein. This was when I first realized that not all educators saw helping students to grasp difficult material as their first duty.
During the 1970s and ‘80s one of my relatives practiced nursing at Children’s Hospital of Washington, DC. During that time she regaled us with tales of the interesting patients and parents she encountered, including the creative names of some: e.g., Fraida Lightnin, Bicentennial Jones (guess when he was born), the Jewel sisters (Ruby, Opal, and Emerald), and 6’9” Baby, whose mom had just run out of names after eight kids. My relative’s favorite was the woman who had named her three daughters “Tonsillectomy, Appendectomy, and Hysterectomy.” (Not kidding.)
But she also learned something less amusing from the some black parents who brought their children to the hospital: many of them were functionally illiterate; they couldn’t write a coherent sentence or two on the admittance form to describe the symptoms their children were suffering from. Resisting the inclination to attribute this inability to mental slowness, she inquired further and uncovered another of education’s (really) dirty secrets.
She learned that those illiterate parents had grown up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the 1950s. After the 1954 “Brown vs. Board of Education” case, wherein the Supreme Court struck down the Jim Crow “separate but equal” doctrine, several Eastern Shore counties closed their public schools entirely for several years to avoid integrating. White children enrolled in private schools, but children “of color” lacked that option – either due to limited funds, or because the private schools wouldn’t take them. So for several years minority kids were out of luck, education-wise. Some never returned to school at all. Racial politics ruined their education.
Keeping Schools Closed.
After a long, frustrating hiatus from normal teaching and school activities, American teachers are eager to get back to work teaching their young charges. Ahh…really? Well, you could have fooled me. Despite clear scientific evidence that students aren’t at lethal risk from the virus, and don’t tend to infect others, teachers’ unions have resisted returning to normal, in-person classroom-teaching in many of the nation’s public-school systems.
In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest public-school system, some students won’t be returning to normal classroom-schooling at all, while others will be in class, physically, only a few days per week. Virginia’s Arlington and Loudoun Counties have rolled out similar plans. Nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, has a draft plan for bringing back students in phases, when the school year begins on August 31st, but a teachers’ union is voicing health and safety concerns over the planned return to the classroom.
Farther afield, in progressive California-land, the reopening of San Diego schools has been sabotaged by demands issued by the local teachers union. In an article for the San Diego News Desk, reporter Nicholas Vetrisek writes:
“The San Diego Unified School District teachers’ union has been adamantly refusing to return to classrooms until their demands are met. The union, San Diego Education Association (SDEA), wants near zero cases of coronavirus or a downward trajectory in infections for two weeks before its teachers will do their jobs. They also want frequent testing of students, staff, and teachers along with prevention measures being fully funded.
“None of the requirements have been met and most are unlikely to ever be met. San Diego is experiencing a serious budget shortfall, and implementing costly and unnecessary procedures just so teachers can feel “safe” will not happen. In addition, due to COVID-19 testing only getting better, cases will go up or at least remain stagnant because of the fact that it is now easier to detect the virus.
“These ridiculous demands only hurt one group: students. They will be stuck at home because SDEA wants to make a power play.”
Well, well – the times have certainly changed. In my day (I’m sounding like grandpop now), if you didn’t show up for work you got fired. These reports only scratch the surface, but they are indicative of a nation-wide trend. Whatever happened to “No child left behind”?
BLM Math and Science?
A recent tweet from James Lindsay reports: “Oxford University has revealed plans to ‘decolonise’ its math and science degrees and will allow students of any subject who have been affected by the Black Lives Matter furor to seek lenient marking.”
And in another report, a BLM “spokesperson” said the entire “white supremacist mathematical construct of 2 + 2 = 4” needs to be re-examined and rethought. Another denounced the scientific method as a “racist construct.” (Even I am impress-ed.)
This reminds me ever so much of the New Jersey state education official who declared in 1999 that his goal was to eliminate the proof-based teaching of mathematics which “alienates so many students.” (As my pop used to say, “It’s not funny enough to laugh at, but we’re too big to cry.”) In an earlier article in this space I wrote:
“With some subjects, form is actually the objective, even though specific subject matter is presented. Plane geometry is like that. One learns all about lines, angles, and polygons, but the true aim is teaching the student how to prove new truth by logically applying axioms and previously proven theorems.
“In adult life, one rarely needs to know: ‘if two parallel lines are cut by a transversal, the alternate interior angles are equal.’ But logical reasoning and proof are skills of formidable lifelong value. Their application enables the discovery of new truth in many fields of study. Some senior educators want to scrap the ‘proof-based teaching’ of geometry because it ‘alienates’ students. Either these radicals don’t understand geometry’s true purpose, or they think it is too hard for modern students. If they get their way, they will cripple the educational future of a generation.”
That New Jersey educator rolled out his vision for “new math” before the Black Lives Matter movement got under way. He was simply ahead of his time.
One of the advantages of being an old guy is having lived long enough to contrast the way things are now to the way they used to be. Eggheads call it “historical perspective.” I’m not settled on whether it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s part of my tool-kit as a social analyst and a writer. When you can remember events and situations from 70 years ago, that’s a lot of perspective.
At any rate, it’s now 60 years since I began studying at a small, highly respected liberal arts college in western New York State. At that time, a semester consisted of 16 weeks of classes, plus another week for final exams. But when I joined the Board of Trustees of that college in 2006, I was surprised to find that the span of a semester was down to 14 weeks.
How did that happen? Like so many changes in our societal norms, it happened little by little, one small step at a time, over 50 years. No doubt the reduction pleased faculty, staff, administration and students alike. After all, who wouldn’t be glad to work less for the same pay? And what student wants a longer-school year?
The reductions, over time, were a win-win-win for three of those interested parties. Only students – being gypped by less instruction and reduced material – were the losers. And they were too young (and too ignorant of the past) to realize that they were being cheated. Meanwhile, a year at my old Alma Mater now costs 30 times what it cost in 1960. (Is this a great country, or what?)
This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it’s not nothing, either. Like the other vignettes presented here, it’s an indicator – a “fire-bell in the night” – warning us of an ominous trend in education.
Leveling the field.
One of educators’ most nettlesome problems over the past half-century has been their inability to narrow the achievement-gap between white and black students. They’ve tried everything:
- Busing minority students to mostly white schools – and vice-versa – so good learning would “rub off” onto poorer students;
- Dumbing down course material;
- Giving minorities the exam-answers ahead of time (as was done at the New Jersey medical school attended by an acquaintance);
- Placing unqualified students in universities where they couldn’t possibly compete; etc., etc.
None of this moved minority students’ academic levels any closer to the levels of white students. It has been so frustrating. What to do?
Then, miraculously, a solution dropped into progressive educators’ laps: the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Voila! The miracle took form: if we can’t raise minorities’ academic levels, let’s cripple the education of those high-achieving white supremacists by keeping them out of school. Studies are already showing that on-line (i.e., “virtual”) learning is less effective than learning in the physical classroom, so let’s just keep the schools closed for a prolonged period – months, or even years – until that pesky achievement-gap is closed. It’s an educational miracle! If this were a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, the chorus would be singing, “Oh rapture!” (What a happy day!)
I admit to holding a lifetime membership in the Grassy Knoll Society of conspiracy-theorists, so my readers can take this final salvo with a grain of salt. But I don’t think I’m out on that limb by myself. The whole effort to keep the schools closed has to be motivated by more than teachers’ fear of the virus and a resistance to working. Parents take note: if you want your kids to get an education, look for a school where that’s the objective.
Education is one of America’s foundational pillars. Its soundness and goodness are absolutely essential to our continuance as a free society and a strong, vigorous nation. If our institutions of education become so corrupted that our young people are no longer receiving sound instruction – not just in the fundamentals, but in understanding how we became what we are – then there is reason to doubt that we can continue as a great nation. These are perilous times.
“Woe unto those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
“Trust, but verify.” (Ronald Reagan)